AZ town to SCOTUS: We can regulate speech for 'aesthetics'

An Arizona pastor is looking to the U.S. Supreme Court for government impartiality between church and state.

The case is Reed v. Town of Gilbert.  Pastor Clyde Reed contends that the local government is slamming his Good News Community Church with far more restrictive rules on signage than politicians and others have to deal with.

Fox News:

Gilbert allows so-called directional signs, like the ones put up by the church inviting people to Sunday worship, to be no larger than 6 square feet. They must be placed in public areas no more than 12 hours before an event and removed within an hour of its end. Signs for political candidates, by contrast, can be up to 32 square feet and can remain in place for several months.

Reed has fared poorly in court so far – the Ninth Circuit and a federal district court have ruled against him.  However, the Wall Street Journal reports that "[s]even federal appellate courts are now in conflict over judging the legality of content-based regulation," with the First, Second, Eighth, and Eleventh favoring a high burden (strict scrutiny) for the government, and the Third, Sixth, and Ninth preferring a lower one (intermediate scrutiny).

The National Council of Cities backs Gilbert, claiming that an equal policy on free speech would make it impossible to keep towns safe and looking nice.  On the other hand, the Obama administration has joined Good News and other religious groups in calling for an end to the ordinance.

David Cortman, an Alliance Defending Freedom attorney representing Good News, said, "The Supreme Court should ensure that no government in America is allowed to prefer one form of speech over another[.] ... Today the government is targeting the church's speech, but tomorrow it could target someone else's."

Via the Washington Post, the dissent of Ninth Circuit judge Paul Watford in that court's decision on this case is illustrative:

Gilbert has merely offered, as support for the sign ordinance as a whole, its interest in enhancing traffic safety and aesthetics. Traffic safety and aesthetics are certainly important interests. But to sustain the distinctions it has drawn, Gilbert must explain why (for example) a 20-square-foot sign displayed indefinitely at a particular location poses an acceptable threat to traffic safety and aesthetics if it bears an ideological message, but would pose an unacceptable threat if the sign’s message instead invited people to attend Sunday church services.

It's hard to justify government allowing or barring speech on the grounds of worrying that someone might trip over a sign – but only a sign saying a certain thing – or (even worse) that the town might not look pretty if people speak their mind.  Laws for the sake of safety or appearance should be tailored specifically, and without ideological preference, to those things – and not tailored to target a small church while letting political campaigns skate.

The Wall Street Journal suggests that "[i]f the government interest is in furthering safety and reducing curbside clutter, the town could simply limit the total number of signs."  That might be more equal, but how many more government bean-counters would be needed for enforcement?

If Gilbert is so interested in safety and aesthetics, maybe it should just bar all signage, and people can go back to good old-fashioned door-knocking to get their points across.  Then again, door-knocking might be too dangerous and ugly, too, depending on what the door-knockers say.

Drew Belsky is American Thinker's deputy editor.  Contact him at drew@americanthinker.com, and follow him on Twitter @DJB627.

An Arizona pastor is looking to the U.S. Supreme Court for government impartiality between church and state.

The case is Reed v. Town of Gilbert.  Pastor Clyde Reed contends that the local government is slamming his Good News Community Church with far more restrictive rules on signage than politicians and others have to deal with.

Fox News:

Gilbert allows so-called directional signs, like the ones put up by the church inviting people to Sunday worship, to be no larger than 6 square feet. They must be placed in public areas no more than 12 hours before an event and removed within an hour of its end. Signs for political candidates, by contrast, can be up to 32 square feet and can remain in place for several months.

Reed has fared poorly in court so far – the Ninth Circuit and a federal district court have ruled against him.  However, the Wall Street Journal reports that "[s]even federal appellate courts are now in conflict over judging the legality of content-based regulation," with the First, Second, Eighth, and Eleventh favoring a high burden (strict scrutiny) for the government, and the Third, Sixth, and Ninth preferring a lower one (intermediate scrutiny).

The National Council of Cities backs Gilbert, claiming that an equal policy on free speech would make it impossible to keep towns safe and looking nice.  On the other hand, the Obama administration has joined Good News and other religious groups in calling for an end to the ordinance.

David Cortman, an Alliance Defending Freedom attorney representing Good News, said, "The Supreme Court should ensure that no government in America is allowed to prefer one form of speech over another[.] ... Today the government is targeting the church's speech, but tomorrow it could target someone else's."

Via the Washington Post, the dissent of Ninth Circuit judge Paul Watford in that court's decision on this case is illustrative:

Gilbert has merely offered, as support for the sign ordinance as a whole, its interest in enhancing traffic safety and aesthetics. Traffic safety and aesthetics are certainly important interests. But to sustain the distinctions it has drawn, Gilbert must explain why (for example) a 20-square-foot sign displayed indefinitely at a particular location poses an acceptable threat to traffic safety and aesthetics if it bears an ideological message, but would pose an unacceptable threat if the sign’s message instead invited people to attend Sunday church services.

It's hard to justify government allowing or barring speech on the grounds of worrying that someone might trip over a sign – but only a sign saying a certain thing – or (even worse) that the town might not look pretty if people speak their mind.  Laws for the sake of safety or appearance should be tailored specifically, and without ideological preference, to those things – and not tailored to target a small church while letting political campaigns skate.

The Wall Street Journal suggests that "[i]f the government interest is in furthering safety and reducing curbside clutter, the town could simply limit the total number of signs."  That might be more equal, but how many more government bean-counters would be needed for enforcement?

If Gilbert is so interested in safety and aesthetics, maybe it should just bar all signage, and people can go back to good old-fashioned door-knocking to get their points across.  Then again, door-knocking might be too dangerous and ugly, too, depending on what the door-knockers say.

Drew Belsky is American Thinker's deputy editor.  Contact him at drew@americanthinker.com, and follow him on Twitter @DJB627.